Saturday, September 23, 2006

6th CD -- Thinking about transportation

Posted by Craig Westover | 7:03 AM |  

The Strib posts a summary of the 6th District congressional candidates positions on transportation, noting that the 6th stretches across the northern metro from Stillwater to St. Cloud and involves many areas where commuters face road congestion. A 6th District resident, I can vouch for that. So here’s what I think of these positions:
• Wetterling reiterated her call for the state to finish the Northstar commuter rail line by extending it west to St. Cloud and ramp up other mass transit. The Northstar line, she said, "is an investment that we have to make."

• Bachmann said: "We need to lay more asphalt across the Sixth District. We need to build more roads, we need to build more bridges." She cited the long-planned replacement for the Stillwater lift bridge.

• Binkowski supported raising gasoline taxes for more roads but warned it might not solve congestion. "We can lay all the asphalt we want, there's still going to be traffic," Binkowski said. If you've ever been to Los Angeles, he said, it doesn't matter if its six or eight or 10 lanes of traffic, "it's a parking lot."
They are all right, and they are all wrong. They each champion one solution at the expense of an overall plan. Let’s start with Binkowski, because he offers the best insight and the worst solution.

Binkowski’s comparison to Los Angeles is apt. The relatively small downtown areas of Minneapolis and St. Paul and the sprawling suburban and exurban area surrounding it make the Twin Cities much more like LA than New York or Chicago, which in turn makes it a car-driven culture not easily adaptable to mass transit options. Binkowski’s also right that building more roads won’t necessarily reduce congestion. At best it will help us keep up with growth and manage congestion. However, raising the gas tax is simply throwing more money at the problem. A better solution is to spend the current taxes and fees generated by gas taxes and license fees on transportation as intended, but do so with some coherent plan in mind.

Jumping to Bachmann, she’s partially right. Given the geographic structure of the Twin Cities, roads are always going to be an important part of the infrastructure. People don’t just travel from the ‘burbs to downtown. They travel between suburbs. Such geography and travel patterns aren’t conducive to mass transit, which is a point-to-point solution, not a network. Having said that, overemphasis on roads is simply going to magnify the trend to a car-culture. Congestion is like gas prices, the worse it gets the more viable other forms of transpiration become. What we need to look at is where the fall-off point is and what are the characteristics of people at that point where there are VIABLE alternative transportation options. Roads alone are not an answer.

That brings us to Wetterling, who offers the worst of all possible approaches. Wetterling wants to provide a generic solution, mass transit, without recognizing what the problem is. She has no idea whom mass transit is suppose to serve or what form is appropriate. To be honest, nobody does, but we can make some guesses.

Where mass transit is needed most is within Minneapolis and St. Paul proper. People that have no transportation alternative need it for short-hops to many locations. That’s not a light rail point-to-point solution. That’s a network solution, cars and buses and – gosh, might there be a private sector solution? Say a jitney service of low-cost, shared, on-demand car service? Maybe, but not under current city rules that limit cab licenses and regulate who can provide such service where.

The point is the single parent that has to get the kids to daycare and school and then get to work isn’t going to do it on the Hiawatha line. Who does use the Hiawatha line, which is heavily subsidized by tax dollars? Mom and pop in the ‘burbs. One drives the other to the train station in the SUV, then drops the kids at school and drives to a job in the suburbs. Wetterling’s approach of starting with a solution instead of looking at the problem magnifies that kind of mismatch.

The insidiousness of both the Bachmann and Wetterling approach is that they encourage Congress to dump funds into the district for one-off projects that fit no overall plan. I don’t have an answer for pork-barrel distribution of federal dollars, but here’s some suggestions for a transportation plan.

First, use the funds raised by transportation fees and taxes for transportation (I don’t support doing it by amendment, but do support doing it). Roads are the first priority, but not the only path.

Second, develop mass transit by looking at the needs of riders not the needs of people running the system or how neat the solution is. Shinny trains are cool, but they are endlessly in need of subsidy and at best make transportation more convenient for people that have other alternatives. If trains are part of the picture, plan routes that solve problems, not simply to fit a preconceived idea of a future point-to-point network that by the time it is complete may not reflect the transportation patterns that exist when it is planned. Mass transit solves problems – it is not an end in itself (but just listen to how people talk about the Central Corridor, as a project, not as a solution to real problems).

Third, look at what barriers stand in the way of private sector transportation options and get rid of them. If there is a significant demand for travel from Woodbury to Bloomington, for example, why shouldn’t a private bus company be encouraged to create service – or a private jitney service? I’m not talking about subsidies; simply remove the barriers that make it economically impractical or legally impossible to encourage such service.

As noted above, the congressional issue really comes down to voting for dollars, the more the better as long as the 6th gets more at the expense of the everyone else, or what’s a congressperson good for? Planning local transportation solutions to real problems is a state and local issue. It’s the statewide office seekers that ought to be addressing the problem – with a plan.